The Hermit Kingdom: A Nation at Arms 

1.0 Introduction

The Hermit Kingdom, better known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a nation built for war. Boasting one of the world’s largest militaries in terms of manpower, the small peninsula nation has historically posed a threat to its neighbour South Korea (ROK). As of 2024, the mood in Pyongyang has shifted from peaceful Korean reunification to a perpetual armed standoff. How ready is their military in the event of an open conflict?

1.1 No More Reunification

Towards the end of December 2023, the dictatorial leader of the DPRK: Kim Jong UN, announced to his ruling party of close allies and senior military figures that the nation would no longer pursue reunification with the ROK. Instead, the nation would prepare for war. Kim compared his fellow countrymen in the south to ‘a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state’ to the USA. Stating further that those across the DMZ were devoid of any Korean culture. (Source)

Photo of Kim Jong Un during the 8th Plenary meeting in 2023 of the DPRK
Kim Jong Un at 8th Plenary Meeting in December 2023. KCNA via Reuters

2.0 History of the DRPK

Historically, the hermit kingdom has long been a highly militarised nation. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, both nations have established an uneasy peace. In fact, neither side has formally signed an armistice. Since then, the Kim dynasty has ruled the nation, ruling with an iron fist. The ideology of the nation is highly communist in nature, however it is clear the system is run off a totalitarian regime. As such, Kim and the state have pumped their finances into the military and propaganda, largely directed against the ROK and the US. Evidently, Kim Jong Un places a large proportion of this spending on the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal. As such, placing the question of the nation’s military preparedness under international concern and analyses on their nuclear development. (Source)

2.1 Why is the DPRK so Militarised?

The hermit kingdom ranks as the world’s third least democratic nation. Additionally, nearly 60% of the total population live below the poverty line where starvation and access to medical care is largely insufficient. Therefore, such poor standards of living bestow a dilemma for any dictatorial regime: how to keep the masses under control. The primary way in which the hermit kingdom achieves this is through their military via mass mobilisation. Although not effective technologically or through training in comparison to their southern neighbours, the DPRK boasts over 1.2 million personnel with millions more having already served. Therefore, fear through the military in suppressing the population as well as imminent danger of the imperialist west posed by the regime instils a militaristic culture and demographic. (Source) (Source) (Source)

3.0 Conventional Capabilities and Equipment

3.1 The People’s Army of Korea (PAK)

DPRK soldiers in formation
DPRK-soldiers-on-parade. KCTV via NK News

Not much has been said for the People’s Army of Korea (PAK) by Kim. During his major party ruling in late December, the dictator spouted how the military should be prepared to thoroughly annihilate the US and ROK if provoked, pledging to invest in the military further by increasing their preparedness, along with building up their industrial base. However, much of that rhetoric seems concentrated on nuclear technology and aerial capabilities rather than ground assets. (Source)

Meanwhile, the ROK has promised to retaliate in kind in response to Kim’s provocative language, investing in their military capabilities and defence systems. Throughout 2024, it is a realistic possibility that minor clashes between both nations could occur across the border in isolated incidents. On 31 January, President Yoon voiced concern that these incidents could pick up in April during the nation’s National Assembly elections. Furthermore, back in December 2023, ROK intelligence supported the possibility of increased incidents along the border. Evidently, such clashes have been going on for years, instead, the concern is how frequently these clashes will occur throughout 2024. (Source) (Source) (Source)

3.1.1 KPA Equipment 

The equipment found across the KPA ranges in size and function and totals an estimated 20,625 individual vehicles and systems. Currently, this number is split as follows: (Source)

  • Tanks at 33%
  • Armoured Fighting Vehicles 19.3%
  • Artillery 27.7%
  • Logistics 20.1%

Additionally, much of the equipment is outdated or lacks sufficient logistics in maintenance or facilities. As such, the majority of this equipment comes from China and Russia.

3.2 The Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAF)

Fighter planes of the DPRK taking off
Two KPAF jets taking off from the runway. KCNA via NK-News

It is estimated that the Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAF) holds 572 aircraft ranging from transport to attack craft, and helicopters. In December, Kim visited the country’s air force command to watch how the KPAF performs. Commemorating them on their ability to protect the nation despite unfavourable odds. Kim was likely referring to the airpower of the US. However, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported in 2020, despite fielding nearly 110,000 personnel, available training and logistics are unable to support the KPAF in the event of conflict. (Source) (Source)
However, Kim has vowed to invest in the production of drones for the military. In January 2023, IISS reported that the DPRK had around 300 drones within their arsenal. It must be noted however that the vast majority are smaller, reconnaissance-based platforms imported from Russia and the Soviet era. In July 2023, during one of the nation’s many military parades, the DPRK unveiled two new drone types. It was noted by observers that the drones closely resemble that of the US MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk. However, they have yet to be observed in operation or how they function. (Source) (Source) (Source)

3.2.1 Types of Aircraft 

Below is a non-exhaustive list of known aircraft used by the DPRK. Much of the current equipment is outdated and likely needs immediate maintenance. Additionally, it is possible that some aircraft are not public knowledge. (Source)

Combat Aircraft

  • 106 F-5 
  • 97 F-6
  • 120 F-7
  • 80 H-5
  • 26 MiG-21
  • 56 MiG-23
  • 35 MiG-29
  • 18 Su-7
  • 34 Su-25

Transport

  • 1 AN-24

Combat Helicopters

  • 84 MD500
  • 48 Mi-2
  • 41 Mi-8
  • 8 Mi-14
  • 20 Mi-24
  • 4 Mi-26

Training Aircraft

  • 30 FT-2
  • 135 FT-5
  • 4 MiG-15
  • 4 Su-25

3.3 The Korean People’s Army Naval Force (KPNAF)

Unveiling of the DPRK's nuclear submarine
KPNAF nuclear submarine. KCNA via Reuters

The Korean People’s Army Naval Force (KPANF) is largely dwarfed in comparison to the KPA. However, KPANF has a fleet of 470 surface ships and 70 submarines. As expected, most of the vessels are either outdated or poorly manned.

In September, the hermit kingdom unveiled a significant change to the KPANF. As such, unveiling the fleet’s first missile submarine. Throughout 2023, the regime has boosted its funding into nuclear research for the navy. Later in January 2024, the world saw exactly how this funding was allocated as the ‘Haeil-5-23’ underwater nuclear drone was used in a test. The exact timing of the test came in response to US and ROK naval exercises, which the regime viewed as provocative. Ultimately, it goes to highlight the nature in which nuclear technology is being used at sea as a means to increase the capacity of the regime’s deterrence. (Source) (Source)

4.0 Intelligence and Clandestine Capabilities

Not much has been stated in regard to the hermit kingdoms’ intelligence apparatus. It is likely that as the year progresses, the Reconnaissance General Bureau will see an uptick in intelligence collection regarding western technology seeing that Kim is keen on technological development. Meanwhile, the Ministry of State Security will no doubt have their hands full keeping the population in check as Kim entertains the idea of ‘less food, more weapons’. 

However, the most realistic possibility regarding the use of the intelligence services will be surrounding the country’s nuclear program. This will involve protecting state secrets whilst also conducting industrial espionage, likely through hacking and cyber attacks. Secondly, it is unlikely that the services will see further investment given Kim’s directive focus being on the military. Instead, the services will be used in a support role to assist in the military’s preparedness and capabilities. 

5.0 Nuclear Capabilities

Graphic showcasing the DPRK's nuclear range across the globe

Nuclear production within the DPRK dates back to the 1960’s with the production of nuclear reactors. Since then, the DPRK has used all means of coercion, clandestine activity, and scientific capability to acquire the technology to develop nuclear weapons. Therefore, by 2003 the DPRK withdrew from the NPT with the first successful test announced on 9 October 2006.

In reality, the exact number of nuclear weapons held by the hermit kingdom is unclear. In April 2023, the Institute for Science and International Security released a report on the amount of nuclear weapons in the DRPK. To date, it is estimated anywhere between 31 to 96 nuclear weapons are in stock. However, in 2017, US intelligence estimates that the country could produce 12 weapons annually. By this data alone, according to the RAND Corporation the DPRK could have over 200 nuclear weapons by 2027. (Source) (Source)
Since 2023, the DPRK has launched an extensive flight log of nuclear launches and tests. In December that year, the nation’s nuclear program successfully tested a solid-fueled rocket engine, likely pushing the range of future nuclear missiles. Worryingly, Kim’s drive to further his country’s nuclear capabilities did not end that year. On 1 January, Kim gave a speech commemorating the Workers Party plenary meeting. As such, Kim vowed to increase the nation’s nuclear arsenal over the next year, using highly provocative language towards the US and ROK in the process. (Source)

5.1 Types of Nuclear Weapons

A photo of the North Korean ICBM Hwasongpho-17 from above
North Korean Hwasongpho-17 ICBM. Flickr

As such, despite such figures being estimative in nature, what is certain is the type and range of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons. Below is a list of known missile systems and platforms either in development or are operational. Each with the capacity to carry nuclear weapons. (Source) (Source)

Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)

  • Hwasong-13 a range between 5,500 – 11,500km
  • Hwasong-14 a range of 10,400km
  • Hwasong-15 a range between 8,500 – 13,000km

Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM)

  • Hwasong-12 a range of 4,500km
  • BM-25 Musudan a range between 2,500 – 4,000km

Short Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM)

  • Hwasong-5 a range of 300km
  • Hwasong-6 a range of 500km
  • KN-02 a range between 120 – 170km
  • KN-18 a range of 450km
  • KN-24 a range of 410km
  • KN-25 a range of 380km

Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM)

  • Hwasong-7 a range between 1,200 – 1,500km
  • Hwasong-9 a range between 800 – 1,000km

Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

  • Pukguksong-1 a range of 1,200km
  • Pukguksong-3 a range of 1,900km

Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV)

  • Taepodong a range between 4,000 – 10,000km

6.0 Cyber Capabilities

DPRK soldiers working on computers

Boasting over 6,000 operatives, the DPRK has a significant cyber capacity to conduct both clandestine and asymmetrical warfare through their cyberwarfare agency Bureau 121, both with their neighbour and internationally. In 2020, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimated that in the event of a war between the ROK and DPRK, the latter would be capable of majorly disrupting the ROK’s military infrastructure as well as the command and control structure. 
According to the Chainanlaysis Cybercrimes 2024 report, the DPRK’s cyber attacks relating to financial incentives have seen an increase of 20% since 2023. Indicating that more cyber operatives are being trained in such methods as opposed to more coherent professional training. In December, South Korean intelligence through their analysis indicated that 2024 would see an increase in attempted cyber attacks by the DPRK. Evident on 4 March when hackers from the DPRK broke into two ROK chip manufacturing plants. (Source) (Source) (Source) (Source) (Source)

7.0 Foreign Relations 

7.1 Arms to Russia 

The hermit kingdom doesn’t possess many nations it could call ‘friends’ on the international stage. As such, China and Russia come as the closest thing to that, despite the relationship being more pragmatic in nature. Typically, the DPRK has been the recipient of arms and military equipment, considering the majority comes from Chinese and Russian material. 

However, on 22 January, the UK’s Defence Intelligence released IMINT showing Russian container ships loading up with Korean munitions. Back in November, the US mission to the UN presented evidence indicating that North Korea was supplying munitions to Russia. It was concluded that the likely reasoning was so that Russia could support itself in Ukraine. 

On 28 February, ROK’s Defence Chief stated that the DPRK had likely supplied nearly 3 million rounds of 152 mm artillery shells. Echoing this back in November, ROK intelligence services indicated in November alone nearly 1 million shells had been delivered to Russia. (Source) (Source) (Source)On top of supplying Russia, both nations have moved to develop their bilateral relations. Particularly in the realm of military cooperation. Throughout January, both foreign ministers had regular visits in each other’s capitals to discuss how a Russian and DPRK working relationship would look. The Impact and Policy Institute notes that the rise in relations comes as both nations have plenty to benefit off one another. For Russia, it is the arms and equipment used in their ongoing war with Ukraine. The DPRK however is seeking energy, satellite technology, and relations development. (Source)

8.0 Future

8.1 DPRK Outlook

Kim Jong Un waving at onlookers in the DPRK
Kim Jong Un waving at crowds in 2021. KCNA via KNS via France 24

It is likely that the future prospect of DPRK’s military posture and readiness will increase in the near future. However, it is unlikely to become an effective fighting force, unlike their sworn enemies to the south and beyond the Pacific. However, it is worth noting that the regime’s investment in their nuclear research program will remain a constant concern and will no doubt be the focal point of Kim’s investment into the military. 

9.0 Conclusion

In conclusion, the military readiness of the hermit kingdom since January 2024 is largely not abnormal. The regime has had a long and extensive history of technological procurement and extensive military force parades showing its power. However, Kim’s recent language showing his intent to move away from reunification with the South and instead align with other ‘anti-imperialist’ nations is concerning. Additionally, the increase in the country’s nuclear technology will only grow. As Kim and senior figures well know, it won’t be their conventional forces which will deter or protect the motherland. Instead, it will be their nuclear arsenal, cyber capabilities, and clandestine methods which will safeguard Kim’s national interests. 

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